Monthly Archives: September 2013

One Huge Beginner Class

Last Friday night, 27 Sept 2013, was another session in the regular series of the SJAA Beginner Astronomy Class.  There is usually a free, public star party happening at the same time, right outside during these classes.

During this session, we were given advance notice that two third grade classes, and their families, would be coming to both the class as well as the star party. These classes came from one of the schools that is part of Rocketship Education, a charter school system operating in less affluent areas of San Jose.

rocketship beginner classWe’re not entirely sure if we did the math beforehand or not, but if we were to take the 30 to 40 third graders, then multiply that by, say, a family of four, we would get… well, one HUGE beginner class!  And that’s exactly what showed up: Attendance estimates were up to 160 people of students, younger siblings, older siblings, moms, dads and even a grandma or two. They showed up not in individual automobiles, but a charter bus.  Yes, that’s right not a yellow school bus, but a full size, dual axle charter bus.  These families were here on a mission, a mission to get some exposure to astronomy science. And that’s exactly what we gave them.

Our regular beginner class instructor, Mark Wagner, became unavailable for personal reasons at the last minute.  That left myself and Greg Claytor, another SJAA board member, to cover for him.  Neither Greg nor I have ever led a beginner class before, but there was no way we could let these families down.  We worked together earlier in the day to develop a game plan. What we came up with was a two-fold plan to first cover the basics of looking through a telescope, and second, what was up in the fall night sky.  rocketship beginner classGreg did a great job of explaining how to approach a telescope, which end to look through and how to make sure that people were able to see something through the eyepiece.  I proceeded to hand out a printout of the September Sky, that I downloaded from the Skymaps site.

After the class was finished, the teacher instructed the families on how to proceed to the telescopes, set up outside.  He split them into two groups, the first would go straight over to the scopes, while the other group would hang out at the playground until about 30 or 45 minutes had passed. He was good enough to recognize that over 150 people lining up at only a dozen (or less! We didn’t know what the turnout would be) telescopes would not make for a pleasant experience.

The call for scopes I had put out the night before was a success. I counted at least thirteen scopes and binoculars lined up at ‘telescope row’. Though there were lines during some points that night, they were manageable and everyone seemed to have a great time.  As I had noted in the call out for scopes, there were plenty of oohs and ahhs from people who had never looked through a telescope before.  And that’s what many of these amateur astronomers like to do: We love to share the beautiful views of the night sky and the wondrous objects they contain. That makes it all worth it.

Big thanks go out to those SJAA Members and Friends who heeded the call. Without them, we would not have been able to make this evening a success.

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports, Programs

Expedition – Laguna Mountain

laguna tall tree and view

The following is my report about our visit to Laguna Mountain, in California’s Hernandez Valley, nestled between the coastal and Diablo mountain ranges. Chris Kelly, my friend Tim Berry, a TAC imager named Enrico, and I comprised the entire group that day and night on 07 September 2013.  I knew we would be going to a really remote place. My goal was to experience what it would be like to try it from a one night perspective.

Laguna Mountain, managed by United States’ Bureau of Land Management (BLM), is a long way to go, but you really get a sense of the central part of California from the drive down there, traveling through Hollister, passing by the east entrance to Pinnacles National Park on highway 25 . The location is just about exactly one hundred miles from base camp Houge Park in San Jose. It takes about two hours with no stops (as measured driving back to SJ in the very early morning).

Highway 25 is a leisurely drive, but does get a bit twisty and a little slow in certain areas. It’s well maintained and can be fast in certain stretches.  On your way to Laguna, on Highway 25, well past the Pinnacles, you come down off a hill where the road turns sharply to the right. You see a sign pointing to the left toward Laguna Mountain Access, Coalinga Road.  This road is not as well maintained, so the going is slower. The pavement is rougher, the road crosses several single lane cattle crossing grates, and low areas, dips, where bridges should be (but are not).

laguna mountain entranceAfter about 25 minutes on Coalinga Road, you start to approach BLM land, with the Short Fence Trailhead parking area.  A little while later, while noticeably gaining elevation, you pass by the Sweetwater Trailhead and campground.  A short while after that, you reach your destination, the Laguna Mountain Campground, so you make a right onto the gravel road.  It leads up to the campground and terminates at a small clearing where there is a vault toilet building, an information kiosk, and the gate.

At the camping area of Laguna Mountain, there are five sites, on seemingly fresh crushed gravel; it’s a little dusty.  There are shade structures, about 10 by 12 feet in dimension, on a concrete pad with a metal picnic table bolted, chained to the slab.  Sites are decent sized and space away from each other, providing plenty of privacy.  There is no water, so be sure to bring plenty your own. laguna campsiteThere are no trash cans, so  you have to pack your trash out.  There are fire rings but it’s hot and dry out there, I would hesitate having a campfire.  Site 5 is the best, at the top of the  hill, but it’s technically behind the gate. To use it, you would have to park in the clearing, near the gate/kiosk and haul all your stuff up the hill, about 30-50 meters around the gate, then back up again to the site.  It has good views and is relatively flat, so you could even set up your gear there and observe right at your camp. UPDATE: I’m told that this site is fully available for the asking; contact the local BLM office (links are above in this post) or the SJAA’s Rob Jaworski.

The observing area where we set up that night was up the hill beyond the locked gate.  To get there, we had to drive about a quarter mile past the gate, for which Chris had the combination as he was also in possession of a permit. Driving up that dirt road, the biggest issue is one fairly steep section of road, maybe fifty feet in length, we had to climb with our vehicles. The 4WD vehicles had no problem but the one non-4WD sedan in our group did have problems climbing. locked gate at lagunaA second run at the hill with more momentum and using a different track, with less loose dirt and rock, proved successful.  If the surroundings are wet and muddy, this may be a significant problem as the  grade would be impassable, possibly even to 4×4’s.

At the top of a ridge, we set up right in the middle of the well graded dirt road, at N36 21.678′ W120 49.608′ (link to google map satellite view).    Being in the middle of road, if another vehicle had happened to encounter and want to pass us, it would have been impossible  unless we all broke down our equipment to let them through. Luckily and expectedly, there was no one trying to get to nowhere beyond to the mountain (or returning from it).

South wasn’t perfect, horizon was slightly obscured by the mountaintop, but IIRC, all of Scorpius’ major stars were visible.  To the north was the Hernandez Valley, and you could see the reservoir; the horizon is pretty low, the Big Dipper swung all the way down and you can easily see all the stars in Ursa Major’s famous asterism. To the northwest, there is a distinct light dome coming from either Hollister or Soledad. Most of us argued for the former while Chris suggested it was the latter. Later, looking at maps, it was apparent that Soledad was the most likely candidate, being much closer and more to the west. Another, much smaller light dome was visible closer to due north, which matches pretty well to where Hollister would be.  The hills to the east had a very faint glow coming from behind them, to which I guessed those were probably all the far off towns in the central valley blending together. To the south, there was nothing.  In the valley below us, to the west, there were only two, very faint and very far off lights coming from a ranch house or barn.  You have to stand up tall and look over the brush to see them.  You won’t even be able to point at them with most scopes, especially dobs.  Other than that, locally, there was nothing else, nothing but occasional coyotes yapping in the distance.

This is more of a site report than an observing report, but I’ll make small mentions of what we did up there in the dark.  Chris was all over the place with his C14, as usual. Enrico was imaging and showed us versions of the eagle nebula, which looked best in red, though green looked red, and so did blue. Confused? So was I; I don’t image.  I did manual searching around through the awesome Milky Way, pretending I was an eighteenth century Herschel or Messier, trying to find random things in my XT8.  For some reason, I fixated around Delphinus, and found NCG 6834 pretty easily.  A lot of my time was also just taking in the dark sky naked eye, what a fabulous place we live, our galaxy.  We weren’t disappointed with space pebbles crashing into our perfect-for-us atmosphere, many of which seemed to travel from west to east across the southern sky.  It just so happened we all saw one come straight down to the south, fiery green, smoke trail and all.  We were all using some flavor of Sky Safari all night, a bunch of silhouettes walking around in the dark with dim, red flat panels in our hands. Tim DeBenedictis does a great job of trying to obsolete paper charts, yes he does.

I had obligations the next day, so my buddy Tim and I packed it up and were on the road back to the bay area a little past midnight.  We expected to see lots of wildlife on Coalinga Road, then highway 25, but we were all alone. All we saw, the whole way back, was the fuzzy tail of a scampering mammal, as it was disappearing into the roadside brush.  I won’t mention the small number of nocturns hanging outside the just-closed social establishments of Tres Pinos; they don’t count.

Summary:  This location is good for people looking for dark skies, and imagers, who don’t mind the drive and would be willing to spend the night, driving back the next day.  It’s not well suited in its current form for any sort of organized event.  The location could handle perhaps a dozen observers, perhaps a bit more, scattered throughout the ridge and the campgrounds.  I would certainly list it as a place to go and check out with your gear. The land managers are asking for suggestions for improvements and are trying to draw more visitors to come and use their sites in this area.  If you like remote, this is the place.

sundown at laguna

Posted in Articles, Trip Reports

Binocular Stargazing at RCDO

This past Saturday night (9/7), the Binocular Stargazing Program was held for the third time this year at Rancho Canada del Oro. Using binoculars is a great way to to explore star the night sky.  You can see the “big” picture – constellations and how they move as the night progresses.  Plus you can see asterisms, open star clusters, globular star clusters, binary stars, planets (when viewable) and a galaxy or two.

We encourage folks to bring binoculars, a comfortable chair, warm clothes, and a red lens flashlight.   As the sky darkens we explain how to read an all sky map ( that is provided to participants.  I take a few minutes to explain the advantages of using binoculars and how to select them.  We point out the brighter stars and constellations. Using Polaris (the North Star) we show how the sky rotates around it.  As the night progresses we point out and explain many of the night sky wonders.

There have been between 25 to 35 folks showing up on average. With quite a few that have returned. Many people stay after the session ends to spend time viewing additional objects and to ask questions. This program is a great way for those who are just starting out to explore star gazing.

Ed Wong

Posted in Articles

Rancho’s Fireball

Last night (Sunday 9/8) I opened up Rancho Canada del Oro so folks can do some observing under semi dark moonless skies.   We had perfect weather – warm and no wind.  The lot filled up by 8:30 as we had 15 scopes set up.   There were a couple of families that came out and set up their scopes to show their kids the night sky.   Rancho continues to attract beginners as folks find out that all of us are very receptive and helpful.   Everyone comments on how nice it is to see the band of the Milky Way.

One of the highlights last night was the huge blue-green fireball that streaked across the sky around 11:30 pm.  It looked like it had a NE to SW path that took it just above Capricorn.  One person commented that it probably was space debris of some type since it was moving so slow.

A number of folks made comments throughout the night that they were seeing some nice meteor streaks.  I saw 4 good ones and a few brief flashes.   To my knowledge the next major meteor shower is the Draconids with a peak scheduled to happen October 7th-8th.

We finally wrapped up around Midnight.   Overall it was a darn good turnout for a Sunday night!

A big thanks to all who showed up – a lot of new friends were made and all had a good time.

Clear skies,

Dave Ittner

Posted in Articles, Observing Reports

Quick STARt Program Experience

On September 6th I attended a 3 hour Quick STARt class taught by Dave Ittner at the Houge Park clubhouse in San Jose.  He covered many fundamental aspects of astronomy that were enlightening as well as essential for a beginner in amateur astronomy.  Topics covered were the 3 type of telescopes used by amateur astronomers as will as the impact of light gathering, magnification, and lenses design to correct color, and much more.  He covered common methods of locating heavenly objects including the use of coordinates and sky hopping using constellations.  Dave describe the various classifications of stars, galaxies, planets, comets and other celestial bodies and the relationship of size, distance, and color.  He explained what we could expect to see with amateur telescopes in terms of detail and how best to view and search for objects in the sky using different magnification of eyepieces.  He also encouraged participants to use their naked eyes and a pair of binoculars for viewing the sky.

We then went outside to view the skies with one of the club’s telescopes and saw some stars and galaxies.  The nigh sky was somewhat obscured by city lights and haze so viewing was less than optimum but for one who has never seen a galaxy that wasn’t a photo it was awe inspiring even if the galaxy was just a small smudge through the eyepiece.  I wish I could view Saturn but I understand it become visible in the sky around 4-5am.

At the end of the telescope viewing participants returned to the clubhouse where they could check out telescopes and library books to take home.

This class was very interesting and a must for beginners like me who are interested in armature astronomy but know very little.  I highly recommend any beginner enroll in this class.  I understand you must be a member of SJAA in order to enroll but it is otherwise free and well worth attending.

Frank Geefay – new member and new to amateur astronomy.

Posted in Articles, Programs

Sun September 1

Observe The Sun Safely – Never look at the Sun without a proper filter!
 Solar Programs are held 1st Sunday of every Month 2:00-4:00 PM at Houge Park  weather permitting.

I expected a less than average turnout this Labor Day weekend. Yet we had 4 Solar Scope Setups and a nice crowd of folks (thanks to all for coming out) that kept the event going past 4:00 o’clock.

Click Image to Enlarge
Four Scope Setups were rewarded with a very active view of the Sun. Thanks to Gary Chock for photo.

Jenny at 100mm H-Alpha scope checking out the “Bic lighter” prominence.

And speaking of that O’clock we noted superb H-Alpha flares (quiescent prominences) at 7, 9 and  12, refactor view, and one “Bic lighter” H-Alpha active flare (surge prominence) at 8 o’clock on the solar dial. The quiescent flares extended some 40,000 miles from the Sun and extended along the Sun 70-80 thousand miles.  The narrow surge prominence extended some 80,0000 miles form the surface before we saw it’s upper region dissipate.
Prominence classes – the word flare is a nebulous term. Some prominences are flares in heliophysics sense and generally they all are. Educating kids, I use the word H-Alpha flare instead of the abstract term prominence. This helps young viewers understand what they are looking for while identifying it in the H-Alpha or Chromosphere layer of Sun.

Prominence classes – the word flare is a nebulous term. Some prominences are flares in heliophysics sense and generally they all are. Educating kids, I use the word H-Alpha flare instead of the abstract term prominence. This helps young viewers understand what they are looking for while identifying it in the H-Alpha or Chromosphere layer of Sun.

At it’s peak the solar dynamo is sizzling and dazzling. In Keven Lahey’s 10 inch scope we counted 28 sunspots in 4 groups giving a sunspot count of 68. Actually I incorrectly counted four groups instead of three. Had I not done that my estimate would have agreed with the ISN, International Sunpot Number of 58. Below is an image of the Sun for September 1st.

Three Sunspot Groups and a total Number of 28 sunspots gives Sunspot Number (SN = G+N) of 58.

Look forward to seeing everyone next Solar Meetup at Houge October 6th!

Posted in Blog, Solar